Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
|Phil Rizzuto (MLB Photos via Getty Images)|
In the late 1930s, the mighty New York Yankees bestowed their largess on two top minor league clubs. In the east, the Newark Bears used the relationship to collect a cluster of Top 100 champions. Further west, the Kansas City Blues displayed a fine champion of their own in the last year of the decade. The star of this club was none other than the brother of the Yankees’ top slugger.
Kansas City, a charter member of the American Association in 1902, had to wait until the war-shortened campaign of 1918 for its first league champion. Five years later, the Blues won a second pennant and added a third flag in 1929, both times with Top 100 teams. In 1930, Kansas City dropped to fifth place and, as the Great Depression began to take its economic toll, attendance plummeted from a league-leading 281,000 all the way to 113,000. The Blues rose to second place in 1931, but attendance did not improve. The installation of lights did not help much. The 1932 team finished sixth and ticket sales were off another 25%. George Muehlebach, who had owned the team since 1916, finally gave up and sold the Blues to a group that included movie star Joe E. Brown, Des Moines (Western League) club officials E. Lee Keyser, sometimes called the father of night baseball, and Bill Rodgers, and former major league great Tris Speaker.
Keyser became club president, Rodgers business manager and Speaker field manager. Things continued to get worse. Kansas City finished last, attendance fell to an all-time low of 53,000 and Speaker stepped down in mid-season. He was succeeded by Nick Allen, who had led St. Paul to the Junior World Series championship in 1924. The team was sold again, this time to Johnny Kling, a resident of Kansas City, KS, who was the star catcher of the great Chicago Cubs teams of 1906-1910. Keyser stayed on as business manager. The 1934 manager was Roger Peckinpaugh who had piloted the Cleveland Indians from 1928-1933. Kansas City still came in last, but attendance went up a little bit. In 1935, Kling and Keyser brought back popular Dutch Zwilling, skipper of the great 1929 Blues, as manager.
Kansas City finished in a tie for third place and attendance doubled over the previous year. The Blues came in third in 1936 and attendance rose to 219,000, second in the league. In 1937, Kansas City became an affiliate of the New York Yankees and during the summer, Kling sold the Blues to Yankee owner Col. Jacob Ruppert. Muehlebach Field became Ruppert Stadium. In 1938, Bill Meyer was installed as manager, the Blues finished second, won the playoff, defeated another Yankee-owned team, the Newark Bears (Top team No. 16) in the Junior World Series and led the American Association in attendance (257,913). The stage was set for 1939.
Kansas City lost the opening game of the season in Indianapolis. Four of the next five games were rained out and the Blues lost the fifth. At the end of the first road trip Kansas City was 4-4 in sixth place. The home opener, April 25, was a huge success. Before a near-capacity crowd of 14,502 at Ruppert Stadium, Kansas City defeated Louisville 8-2. Center fielder Vince DiMaggio homered on the first pitch he saw. The Blues were in third place for the next two weeks, but then they won six of seven games and were first by May 15, overtaking Minneapolis. For the next 3-½ months the pennant race was a nip-and-tuck battle between the Blues and Millers. Kansas City was in first place more often than not, but never by more than one or two games. Minneapolis won ten straight in late July, but then Kansas City took 12 of 14 games. On August 28 the Blues led by three games, then began to pull away. Over the final two weeks of the season, Kansas City won 14 and lost only two, including three of four at Ruppert Stadium, and finished eight games in front. Their final record was 107-47, .695, the most wins by an American Association team in a 154-game schedule.
Minneapolis fell just short of the 100-victory mark, finishing at 99-55, .643, good enough to win the pennant most years. Both teams were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, Kansas City falling to third-place Indianapolis and Minneapolis losing to fourth-place Louisville, both by 4-games-to-1 margins. In the regular season the Blues wound up 25 games ahead of the Indians. Louisville just barely made the top four, edging out defending champion St. Paul in the final days of the season. The Colonels played under .500 ball, 75-78, .490, trailing Kansas City by 31-½ games. Louisville went on to beat Indianapolis, also 4 games to 1, then won the Junior World Series from Rochester, the International League representative, 4 games to 3.
By virtue of being in first place at mid-season, Kansas City got to host the American Association All-Star Game on July 19 with the Blues playing a team of stars from the seven other clubs. The game attracted 16,521 fans, the best ever for the event up to that time, but the All-Stars scored seven runs in the second inning and pounded four pitchers for 20 hits and a 19-7 victory. Kansas City led the league in attendance, 269,865, not including the All-Star Game or an exhibition game with the Yankees that produced an overflow crowd of 23,000.
Kansas City pilot Bill Meyer was one of a handful of managers to win The Sporting News Manager of the Year award in both the minors and the majors, in 1939 with Kansas City and in 1948 with Pittsburgh. He broke into pro ball in 1910 at the age of 18 with his hometown Knoxville, TN, team in the Southeastern League. After playing for Des Moines (Western) and Winona (Northern) he made his big league debut in September 1913 with the Chicago White Sox, going 1-for-1 in his only appearance. Meyer caught for Lincoln (Western), Winona and Davenport (Three I) in 1914-15 before returning to the majors with the Athletics in 1916-17. He was released to Louisville in 1918 and remained with the Colonels for 11 years as a player and manager. He played for Joe McCarthy at Louisville and when McCarthy was appointed manager of the Chicago Cubs after the 1925 season, Meyer succeeded him at the helm of the Colonels. In his first year, 1926, Louisville won the American Association pennant, but lost the Junior World Series to Toronto, one of the Top 100 teams. He stayed at Louisville two more years, finishing in the second division both times. In 1932 Meyer joined the Yankees organization as manager of Springfield, MA, in the Eastern League. The league folded in July with Springfield in first place and New York transferred him to Binghamton (NYP). Under Meyer the Triplets won the pennant in 1933, won the first half in 1934 and took the second half and the playoffs in 1935. He managed Oakland (PCL) in 1936-37 before arriving in Kansas City in 1938. He led the Blues again in 1940-41, managed Newark from 1942-45 and returned to Kansas City in 1946-47. Only twice in ten years did his team finish below second place.
In The Sporting News, Knoxville writer Tom Siler said, “Meyer was probably the only man to turn his back on a chance to manage the Yankees. Joe McCarthy quit during the 1946 season. President Larry MacPhail finished out that season with Bill Dickey, then Johnny Neun as manager. In October, MacPhail approached Meyer, knowing that at least half of the Yankee stars had served part of their apprenticeships under the stocky Dutchman. Meyer demurred. ‘I had a mild heart attack in Kansas City,’ Bill later explained. ‘I missed a month of the season. So I felt I wasn’t up to it; fact is, I didn’t even intend to manage in the minors in 1947. My idea was to sit out the season and see how I felt.’ So MacPhail hired Bucky Harris as Yankee pilot. Meanwhile, Meyer’s health improved and he returned to the Kansas City job.” The Blues again won the pennant and Pittsburgh came knocking at his door. This time, Meyer accepted the offer.
Siler continued, “Taking over a club that had finished in a tie for last place (in 1947), Meyer manipulated his lineup so skillfully that the Pirates were in the 1948 race for the pennant until the last two weeks of the campaign. They finished fourth, 8-½ games behind Boston, and Meyer was rewarded with a contract for three years. However, his magic faded when veterans who had reached their peak in ’48 started downhill. A youth movement was inaugurated and the club finished sixth in 1949, eighth in 1950 and seventh in 1951. Meyer’s contract was renewed by Branch Rickey, who became GM of the Bucs after the 1950 season, but the skipper’s resignation was accepted at the end of the one-year pact.” In 1952, Meyer was saddled with one of the worst aggregations of alleged major league players ever foisted on a manager. The Pirates had a 42-112, .273 record and wound up 54-½ games behind Brooklyn.
Siler related one of Meyer’s favorite anecdotes about that team. It happened in a game in St. Louis. “We had one of our bonus kids on first base with none out. I gave the sign to steal sign to our third base coach and he relayed it to the runner, but the boy didn’t move. I repeated the sign twice and still no results. Finally, Red Schoendienst, the Cardinals’ second baseman, called time and walked over to our man and said, ‘They’ve given you the steal sign three times now. Are you going to stay on first all day?’”
After 1952, Meyer remained with the Pittsburgh organization for three years as a consultant and scout. His health began to fail and he passed away in April, 1957. In The Sporting News, veteran Pittsburgh writer Les Biederman said, “Meyer was one of the best-liked men ever to come into baseball. He was popular with everybody--players, managers, coaches, owners, umpires, writers and fans. He was a great handler of men and his players respected him.” Over 19 years as a minor league manager, Meyer’s record was 1.605-1.325, .548.
The 1939 Blues finished second in team batting (.286) to Minneapolis (.296). They led in only one offensive category, stolen bases with 154. Their main strengths were defensive. Kansas City finished a fraction of a point behind Louisville in team fielding with .972, but the Blues led in double plays (182) by a wide margin, 31 more than the Millers, and their catchers were charged with only five passed balls. No complete team pitching statistics were compiled, but Kansas City was stingiest in opponents runs scored, 554, an average of only 3.6 per game, one hundred fewer than second ranked Minneapolis. The three lowest, and four of the five best, ERAs belonged to Kansas City pitchers.
The talk of the league was the rookie double play combination of 21-year-old shortstop Phil Rizzuto and 19-year-old second baseman Jerry Priddy. Priddy hit .333-24-107, led the American Association in doubles (44), was second in hits (193), total bases (339) and triples (15), third in batting and fourth in RBI. He led the second basemen in putouts (372), assists (456) and double plays (126). Rizzuto batted .316-5-64 and was second in stolen bases (33), two behind Pee Wee Reese of Louisville. He led the shortstops in double plays (109).
Fiero Francis Rizzuto, the 5’6” Scooter, was born in Brooklyn, the son of a streetcar conductor. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Baseball says that he tried out for both the Giants and Dodgers when he was 16. Giants’ manager Bill Terry sent him home. Dodgers pilot Casey Stengel, later his skipper with the Yankees, told him to “Go get a shoe box.” The Yankees signed Rizzuto in 1937 when he was 19 and sent him to Bassett, VA in the Class D Bi-State League. He moved up to Norfolk in the Class B Piedmont League in 1938 where he first hooked up with Priddy. In 1941, Rizzuto took over as the Yankee shortstop, replacing the aging Frank Crosetti. He hit .307 in his rookie year and except for three years in the Navy (1943-44-45) was the regular shortstop until 1954. His best season was 1950, the only other year he hit over .300.
He batted .324-7-66 and led American League shortstops in fielding (.982) and putouts (301). He was named The Sporting News Major League Player of the Year and was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player. From September 17, 1949 to June 8, 1950 he played 58 games, handling 289 chances, without an error. From 1949-1952 Rizzuto was named by the Baseball Writers Association as the shortstop on The Sporting News Major League All-Star Team. He began to slow down in 1953 and in 1954 batted only .195 in 127 games. By the next season he had lost the starting shortstop job to Billy Hunter. Phil’s last year as a player was 1956. On September 2, Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, he was released. During his major league career Rizzuto played in 1,661 games, batted .273 and had a .968 fielding average. He played in nine World Series, batting .246 in 52 games, and was in four Major League All-Star Games (1950-53), hitting .222 (2-for-9).
“The Biographical Encyclopedia” says “it seems that Rizutto’s two most important attributes - his glove and his leadership - are difficult strengths to evaluate. Opponent Ted Williams said that Rizzuto made the difference in the sensational Yankees-Red Sox late-season pennant races. Joe DiMaggio said that ‘Rizzuto holds the team together.’” It took a long time for Phil to make the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Baseball Writers Association declined to elect him for 15 years. After being passed over by the Veterans Committee for 11 years, Rizzuto was chosen in 1994.
Rizzuto was short, dark and from Brooklyn and Jerry Priddy was almost six feet tall, blond and from Los Angeles. When he was 17, he was signed by legendary Yankee scout Vinegar Bill Essick and sent to Rogers, AR in the Class D Arkansas-Missouri League. He batted .336 in his first year, 1937, and hit .323 for Norfolk (Piedmont) in 1938, both times leading the league’s second basemen in fielding. After his two stellar seasons with Kansas City, he moved up to New York along with Rizzuto. However, Priddy had the misfortune to arrive at a time when the outstanding Joe Gordon had the Yankees second base job locked up. Priddy was a utility infielder for the Yanks in 1941-42. He was traded to Washington in January 1943. He was in the Army Air Corps in 1944-45 and returned to the Senators in 1946. Priddy was traded to the St. Louis Browns in December 1947 and to Detroit two years later. He had played 386 consecutive games when he suffered a broken leg sliding into home plate July 6, 1952 and was out the rest of the year. In 1953, his last major league season, he got into only 65 games. In 1,296 major league games, Priddy hit .265-61-541. He led American League second basemen in putouts four times and in assists and double plays three times each. In 1954, Priddy was player-manager at Seattle, the Rainiers finishing fifth in the Pacific Coast League. He played two more years in the PCL before retiring. A few years later he tried a career as a professional golfer.
Rizzuto and Priddy were half of an all-rookie starting infield, rare for an AA championship team. At first base was 23-year-old left-handed hitting Johnny Sturm, who batted .309-7-59 in 131 games. On May 8, against Milwaukee, he went 6-for-6, four singles and two doubles, in an 11-3 win over the Brewers. He was the Yankees regular first baseman in 1941, his only year in the majors. He batted only .239-3-36 in 124 games, but hit .296 in the World Series as the Yanks beat the Dodgers in five games. He was in the service for the next four years and never regained his pre-war form. He played and managed in the Yankees organization for several years.
Third baseman Billy Hitchcock, 23, was in his first year of pro ball, signed by the Yankees after graduating from Auburn University. He was with the Blues for three years, then was acquired by Detroit and made his major league debut in 1942. Hitchcock was in the service in 1943-44-45, then played eight seasons in the American League with Detroit, Washington, St. Louis, Boston and Philadelphia. In 703 major league games he batted .243. He managed Buffalo (International) in 1954, then was a major league coach for Detroit from 1955-1960. Hitchcock managed Vancouver (PCL) in 1961. He managed Baltimore in 1962-63, finishing seventh in 1962 and fourth in 1963. He was a field coordinator for the Orioles in 1964, a scout for Milwaukee in 1965 and a coach for Atlanta the first 3-½ months of 1966. He was appointed Braves manager August 9, 1966, replacing Bobby Bragan. Under Hitchcock, the Braves finished the season 33-18, ending in seventh place. He piloted Atlanta all of 1967, the Braves coming in seventh again. His major league managerial record was 274-261, .512. From 1972-1980 Hitchcock was president of the Class AA Southern League. At the 1980 Winter Meetings, Billy Hitchcock was honored as the “King of Baseball.” His older brother, Jimmy Hitchcock, also an infielder, played briefly for the National League Boston Bees.
Lending experience to the rookie infielders was 33-year-old Jack Saltzgaver, a veteran of 14 years in pro ball. Saltzgaver was a member of another Top 100 team, the 1932 Newark Bears, coming down from the Yankees where he had started the season. He played for New York from 1934-1937, then joined Kansas City in 1938 for seven seasons. He managed the Blues in 1944. He hit .348, but his wartime team finished in the cellar. In 1945, at the age of 39, he played for Pittsburgh, batting .325 in 52 games. In the majors he batted .260-10-82 in 278 games. In the minors he hit .304 with 2,194 hits in 2,036 games.
The biggest bat in the Kansas City lineup belonged to center fielder Vince DiMaggio, the eldest of the three baseball playing brothers. He hit .290 in 154 games, led the American Association in home runs (46), total bases (346) and RBI (136) and was fourth in runs (122). The 46 homers were a team record and an especially impressive total because he played half his games in one of the most spacious parks in baseball. The distance down each foul line was 350 feet and it was 450 feet to dead center, no cheap home runs there. Vince was a good all-round player. He stole 21 bases, sixth in the league, led outfielders in fielding (.993) and double plays (10), and tied for the lead in assists (17). He also led the league in striking out, 123 times, 34 more than the runner-up. One of Vince’s home runs made a distinct impression on a fan. As described in The Sporting News, “Listening to a broadcast of the game with Kansas City, June 6, while driving past the Louisville ballpark, James C. Wilson heard the announcer say that Vince DiMaggio had hit a homer over the left field wall. Wilson poked his head out the car window to see if he could spot the drive. Just then the ball landed on his automobile.”
When Vince was 19 he was signed by his hometown San Francisco Seals and broke in with Tucson (Arizona-Texas) in 1932, hitting a home run in his first time at bat. After batting .347-25-81 in 94 games he was recalled by the Seals and hit .270-6-31 in 59 games. Late in the season he brought his younger brother, Joe, to Seals Stadium for a tryout. Vince started the 1933 season with San Francisco, but was released early in the season and was signed by Hollywood. The Stars franchise was moved to San Diego in 1936. DiMaggio had a good season, batting .293-19-102 with 14 triples, leading outfielders in assists (31), and was purchased by the National League Boston Bees. In two years with the Bees, he batted .256-13-69 and .228-14-61, leading the league in strikeouts both years and setting what was then a major league record by fanning 134 times in 1938. DiMaggio was dispatched to Kansas City in the deal that brought shortstop Eddie Miller to Boston. Meyer worked long and hard with Vince to eliminate a pronounced hitch in his swing and to get him to lay off the high, tight pitches that contributed to his problems. In the first third of the season, DiMaggio batted .342 and hit 24 home runs, but his average had dropped 50 points by the end of the year. Still, he did well enough that Cincinnati purchased him and he reported to the Reds after the playoffs. Cincinnati traded Vince to Pittsburgh and he remained with the Pirates until he was traded to the Phillies during spring training of 1945. He had some productive years with Pittsburgh, especially in 1941 when he hit .267-21-100. He played in two Major League All-Star Games, going 3-for-3 with a triple and a homer in the 1943 contest. Still, the strikeouts persisted, ranging from 83 to 126 from 1940-1945. He was acquired by the Giants shortly after the start of the 1946 season, but after going 0-for-25 with New York he was released to San Francisco. He finished the year with the Seals and played for Oakland in 1947.
In 1948, DiMaggio was appointed manager of the Stockton Ports in the California League. He batted .283 with 100 RBI in 127 games and led the league in home runs (30). The Ports finished fourth but reached the finals of the playoffs before bowing to Santa Barbara, 4 games to 3. In 1949 he signed to manage Pittsburg, CA, in the Class D Far West League. The Diamonds won the pennant in 1949 and finished fifth in 1950. Vince hit .367-37-117 in ’49 and .353-26-129 in ’50. In 1951 Pittsburg became one of the few first-place clubs to fold during the season. The Diamonds were 29-18, but were drawing fewer than 200 fans a game and disbanded June 14. He finished the season playing for Tacoma (Western International), then retired from baseball. Vince was far more emotional than brothers Joe or Dom. Once, while managing Pittsburg and playing center field, he called “time” to protest a decision, came racing in, but ran right past the bewildered umpire and into the team’s office. He phoned Far West League President Jerry Donovan, an old Seals teammate, at his home to complain about the umpire’s call. Donovan told him, in no uncertain terms, to get back on the field or the game would be forfeited. DiMaggio also attracted attention at Pittsburg because his young daughter not only served as the team’s “batgirl,” but regularly took infield practice at second base.
Another outfielder was 22-year-old, left-handed hitting Arthur Beauregard (Bud) Metheny, also a rookie up from Norfolk. Metheny hit .315-10-57. He was a wartime Yankee, playing for New York in 1943-44-45 and batting .247-31-156 in 376 games. He was back in the minors after the war, playing another five years before retiring. Metheny was the baseball coach at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA from 1948-1980 and the basketball coach from 1948-1965. The Bud Metheny Baseball Complex at Old Dominion is named in his honor. His teams posted a 423-363, .538 record, winning seven conference and five regional championships. He was named NCAA College Division Eastern Regional Coach of the Year in 1963-64 and National Coach of the Year in 1964. Metheny was elected to the College Baseball Coaches Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. His basketball teams posted 16 winning seasons in 18 years. He also served as the university’s athletic director from 1963-1970.
Catching was in the hands of 33-year-old veteran Johnny Riddle and 22-year-old rookie Clyde McCullough. Riddle came out of the University of Georgia in 1927 and received his first shot at the majors in 1930 with the White Sox. Over the next 18 years he played all or parts of seven seasons in the majors with Washington, the Boston Bees, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, batting .238 in 98 games. He spent most of his career in the American Association, 12 years with Indianapolis and three with Kansas City. Riddle was playing manager at Birmingham (Southern) for three years, 1942-43-44. He was a coach for Pittsburgh, 1948-50; St. Louis Cardinals, 1952-55; Milwaukee, 1956-57; Cincinnati, 1958 and Philadelphia, 1959. His younger brother, Elmer Riddle, pitched for Cincinnati, 1939-45 and 1947, and Pittsburgh, 1948-49. The two formed a brother battery at times with the Reds.
McCullough, a native of Nashville, TN, broke into pro ball in 1935 with Lafayette (Evangeline). He was purchased by the Cubs after the 1939 season and sent to Buffalo for 1940 where hit .324-27-89 in 145 games and caught 117 consecutive games. He became the Cubs’ number one catcher in 1941. McCullough hit only nine home runs that year, but hit one in each of the eight National League parks! He was in the Navy in 1944-45 and was discharged in time to make one pinch-hitting appearance for the Cubs in the 1945 World Series. He is the only player ever to be in a World Series without playing in a regular season game. McCullough was traded to Pittsburgh in December 1948 and traded back to Chicago in December 1952. His major league playing career ended when he was released by the Cubs in July 1956. His 15-year major league batting average was .252 in 1098 games. He played for Miami (International) in 1957, then managed Reading (Eastern) and Asheville (South Atlantic) in 1958-59. He was a coach for Washington/Minnesota in 1960-61. In 1963 he began a long association with the New York Mets organization, managing in the minors for nine years. McCullough was named Manger of the Year in the New York-Penn League in 1964-65-66 and the Carolina League in 1967. In 1969 he led Tidewater to the International League championship and was named The Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year. He scouted for Montreal in 1972, then returned to the Mets as a minor league instructor from 1973-76. He subsequently joined the San Diego organization and during spring training 1982 was named major league bullpen coach. McCullough was traveling with the Padres in San Francisco September 18, 1982 when he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Kansas City did not have a 20-game winner, but Blues pitchers had the three lowest ERAs in the league, and four of the top five. Kansas City had no left-handed pitchers during the season. Marv Breuer (17-6, 2.28) led in ERA, Tom Reis (17-4, 2.30) was second and led the league in percentage (.810), and Johnny Babich (17-6, 2.55) was third. Breuer and Babich tied with Max Lanier of Columbus for the shutout lead with four. Al Piechota (16-7, 2.88) was fifth in ERA. Breuer, 25, was a civil engineer, a graduate of the Missouri School of Mines in his hometown of Rolla. He had been in the Yankees organization since 1934. In 1937 with Oakland he started the season 0-12, 4.02, still the Pacific Coast League record for consecutive losses. In June, the Yankees mercifully transferred him to Newark and then to Kansas City where he went 5-7, 3.46. On August 21, 1939 at Louisville, Breuer pitched a 2-0 one-hit shutout and had a no-hitter until two were out in the ninth inning. Only one batter, Vince Sherlock, had reached first base, on an error by Saltzgaver in the fourth. Colonels center fielder Chet Morgan, hitless in 28 trips to the plate, hit a high bounder in front of the plate which came down too late for Riddle to throw him out at first base. Breuer then retired pinch-hitter Fred Sington to end the game. Breuer moved up to the Yankees in 1940 and pitched three full seasons for them with a 25-25, 3.91 record. He relieved in one game each in the 1941 and 1942 World Series.
Babich, 26, from Richmond, CA, was signed originally by San Francisco in 1931 and was a teammate of DiMaggio with the Seals and Tucson in 1932. After going 10-3, 2.03 for Mission (PCL) in the early part of 1934, he was purchased by Brooklyn and finished the season there with a 7-11, 4.20 record. He pitched for the Dodgers again in 1935, then was traded to Boston in January 1936. He was injured almost all of the ’36 season, then went back to the PCL. He had a 19-17, 3.27 season with Hollywood in 1938 and was purchased by the Yankees. In October 1939, Babich was drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics. He had a good year for the A’s in 1940 (14-13, 3.73), a last place team that won only 54 games. Five of his victories were over the Yankees. He was hurt again in 1941, dropping to 2-7, 6.12, and was back in the Yankee organization in 1942 at Newark. His major league career record was 30-48, 4.93. He pitched in the PCL for Seattle and Oakland the next three years and was a coach for the Oaks in 1946. In 1947, Babich managed the Stockton Ports in the California League, another Top 100 team, then retired from baseball.
Reis, 25, from Fort Thomas , KY, had been signed by Cleveland in 1933. In 1937 he had a 19-9, 2.97 record for Wilkes-Barre (NYP). On September 18, he pitched a no-hit, no-run game against Binghamton in the playoffs, retiring the last 26 batters in order. He was acquired by the Phillies and pitched eight games for Philadelphia and Boston in 1938 (0-1, 12.27), his only major league experience. He finished the year with Milwaukee. 1939 was his first year in the Yankees organization. He pitched for Newark and Kansas City in 1940 and for the Blues in 1941-42-43 before going into the service. After the war Reis pitched one year for Kansas City, then seven seasons with Oakland, Seattle, Oklahoma City (Texas) and Tulsa (Texas). Piechota, a 25-year-old Chicagoan, broke in with Davenport (Mississippi Valley) in 1933 (a Top 100 team) and was purchased by New York after the 1935 season. 1939 was his third year with Kansas City. At the end of the season he was purchased by the Boston Bees and went 2-5, 5.75 for them in 1940, his only full big league season. In 1941 he was with Boston for one inning, Hollywood, Toronto, Toronto and Hartford. Piechota spent the next five years in the service, then pitched five more years in the minors, three with Little Rock (Southern).
The Kansas City pitcher who had the greatest major league success was 26-year-old right-hander Ernie (Tiny) Bonham who was 10-9, 3.18 for the Blues with three shutouts. Bonham, from Ione, CA, a tiny town about 35 miles northeast of Stockton, was 22 when he broke into pro ball with Akron (Middle Atlantic) in 1936. The next year he was 17-16, 3.66 for Oakland and joined Kansas City from Newark in the middle of the 1938 season. In 1940 he went 10-4, 2.32 for the Blues and was called up by New York on August 1. He had a 9-3, 1.91 record the last two months of the season and walked only 13 batters in 99 innings. In game five of the 1941 World Series he pitched a 3-1 four-hitter against Brooklyn to clinch the championship. His best year with the Yankees was 1942. He had a 21-5, 2.27 record, led the American League in won-lost percentage (.808) and shutouts (6), tied for the lead in complete games (6) and was second in ERA. He walked only 24 batters in 226 innings, a league-best ratio of .98 a game. Bonham was named by the Baseball Writers Association to The Sporting News Major League All-Star Team. He was selected for the Major League All-Star Game in 1942-43, but did not pitch. He pitched in three World Series, 1941-42-43, with a record of 1-2, 2.89 in four starts. Bonham was traded to Pittsburgh in October 1946. He was still with the Pirates when he died suddenly September 15, 1949, following stomach surgery. Bonham was a favorite of Bill Meyer’s, for whom he pitched at Kansas City and Pittsburgh. His major league record was 103-72, 3.06.
The Blues had another player of note, Johnny Lindell, a 22-year-old right-hander from Arcadia, CA, who had an 8-5, 4.40 record. He was signed by the Yankees in 1936 and went 17-8, 4.03 with Joplin (Western Association) in his rookie year. He also showed an ability to hit, batting .325 with 23 RBI in 42 games. Two years later he went 9-8, 3.42 for Oakland and hit .368-4-27 in 60 games. In 1940 Lindell improved to 18-7, 2.70 for Kansas City, tying for the American Association lead in wins, and started the 1941 season with New York. After one game he was optioned to Newark where he had a sensational year. He won 23 and lost only 4 for the Top 100 champion, led the International League in ERA (2.05) and won-lost percentage (.852), was second in wins and was named The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. He moved up to the Yankees in 1942 and was 2-1, 3.74 in 23 games in relief. Joe McCarthy liked Johnny’s batting skills and with a shortage of outfielders because of the war, inserted him in the starting lineup and ultimately had him batting cleanup. Lindell had his best year in 1943, batting .300-18-103. He tied for the league lead in triples (16) and led American League outfielders in putouts (468). He remained with the Yankees until 1950. In the 1947 World Series he hit .500 (9-for-18) with 7 RBI in 6 games as the Yankees edged the Dodgers, 4 games to 3. On May 15, 1950 he was claimed on waivers by the Cardinals. He batted only .186 for St. Louis and the Cards sent him to Columbus (American Association). Lindell wanted to play in the PCL and the Cardinals obliged him by trading him to Hollywood. In his book “Hollywood Stars,” Dick Beverage writes “Lindell was obviously past his prime as an everyday player, but (Manager Fred) Haney thought he might be effective as a pitcher. Lindell had developed a knuckleball, pitching on the sidelines in recent years. Although he had not pitched in eight years, Haney used him in two games late in the year and was pleased by what he saw (no earned runs in seven innings). The conversion of the ex-Yankee began in earnest during the spring. When the season started, Lindell was one of the starters. He succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.” In 1951, he went 12-9, 3.03. The next season Lindell improved to 24-9, with a 2.52 ERA, led the PCL in wins, percentage (.727), complete games (26) and strikeouts (190 in 282 innings). That earned him another shot at the majors, with Pittsburgh. After posting a 6-14, 4.66 record with the Pirates and Phillies in 1953, he retired at the age of 37. Lindell’s major league record as a batter was .273-72-404 in 854 games.
In its last 15 years in the league, Kansas City won its share of regular season titles (1940, 1942, 1947) and playoff championships (1952, 1953). In 1955, the Athletics moved west, displacing the Blues, knocking the city out of the minors for good.
The 1939 Blues were one of the best teams ever to grace the long-lived American Association. In 95 years of league history, only one other team collected a better winning percentage than Kansas City’s .695 mark in ’39.
|1939 American Association standings|
|KANSAS CITY||107||47||.695||-||ST. PAUL||73||81||.474||34.0|
|1939 Kansas City Blues batting statistics|
|Jack Saltzgaver||3B, OF, 1B||129||436||74||126||58||18||8||4||73||38||14||.289|
|Billy Hitchcock||3B, SS||116||369||52||97||40||17||11||4||23||51||15||.263|
|Herman Schulte||3B, 2B||7||16||1||4||1||1||0||0||0||.250|
|1939 Kansas City Blues pitching statistics||PITCHER||W||L||PCT||G||GS||CG||SH||SV||IP||H||BB||SO||ERA|